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Esperanza rising, p.14
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       Esperanza Rising, p.14

           Pam Muñoz Ryan
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  Isabel sat next to Abuelita at the wooden table. They each held crochet hooks and a skein of yarn. “Now watch, Isabel. Ten stitches up to the top of the mountain.”

  Abuelita demonstrated and Isabel carefully copied her movements.

  The needle rocked awkwardly and at the end of her beginning rows, Isabel held up her work to show Esperanza. “Mine is all crooked!”

  Esperanza smiled and reached over and gently pulled the yarn, unraveling the uneven stitches. Then she looked into Isabel’s trusting eyes and said, “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”

  I can still see my grandmother crocheting blankets in zigzag rows. She made one for each of her seven children, many of her twenty-three grandchildren (I am the eldest of the grandchildren), and for the great-grandchildren she lived to see. My grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, was the inspiration for this book.

  When I was a young girl, Grandma used to tell me what her life was like when she first came to the United States from Mexico. I had heard stories about the company farm camp where she lived and worked, and the lifelong friends she made there. When she talked about those people and how they had helped her through desperate, trying times, she sometimes cried at the memories.

  It wasn’t until I had children of my own that my grandmother told me about her life in Mexico, about a fairy-tale existence with servants, wealth, and grandeur, which had preceded her life in the company farm camp. I wrote down some of her recollections from her childhood. How I wish I had written down more before she died because I could never stop wondering about her transition from Mexico to California and what it must have been like. Eventually, I started to imagine a story based on the girl who might have been her.

  This fictional story parallels her life in some ways. She was born and raised in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Her father was Sixto Ortega and her mother, Ramona. They lived on El Rancho de la Trinidad (which I changed to El Rancho de las Rosas) and her uncles did hold prominent positions in the community. A series of circumstances, including her father’s death, eventually forced my grandmother to immigrate to the United States to a company-owned farm labor camp in Arvin, California. Unlike Esperanza in the story, my grandmother had already married my grandfather, Jesús Muñoz, when she immigrated to California. Like Miguel, he had been her father’s mechanic. In the segregated Mexican camp, with my grandfather, she lived much like the characters in the story. She washed her clothes in communal tubs, went to jamaicas on Saturday nights, and cared for her first three daughters. That’s where my mother, Esperanza Muñoz, was born.

  During the early 1930s there were many strikes in the California agricultural fields. Often, growers evicted the strikers from their labor camps, forcing many to live together in makeshift refugee camps, sometimes on farms on the outskirts of towns. The growers were powerful and could sometimes influence local governments. In Kern County, sheriffs arrested picketers for obstructing traffic, even though the roads were deserted. In Kings County, one Mexican man was arrested for speaking to a crowd in Spanish. Sometimes the strikes failed, especially in areas that were flooded with people from states like Oklahoma, who were desperate for work at any wage. In other instances, the strong voices of many people changed some of the pitiful conditions.

  The Mexican Repatriation was very real and an often overlooked part of our history. In March of 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act that gave counties the power to send great numbers of Mexicans back to Mexico. Government officials thought this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression (it didn’t). County officials in Los Angeles, California, organized “deportation trains” and the Immigration Bureau made “sweeps” in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally. Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born United States citizens and had never been to Mexico. The numbers of Mexicans deported during this so-called “voluntary repatriation” was greater than the Native American removals of the nineteenth century and greater than the Japanese-American relocations during World War II. It was the largest involuntary migration in the United States up to that time. Between 1929 and 1935 at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico. Some historians think the numbers were closer to a million.

  Even though my grandmother lived in this country for over fifty years, I can still remember her breaking out in nervous perspiration and trembling as her passport was checked at the border when we returned to the United States from a shopping trip in Tijuana. She always carried the fear that she could be sent back on a whim, even though repatriation had long been over.

  My father, Don Bell, came to California during the Dust Bowl from the Midwest and, ironically, worked for the same company farm where my mother was born. By that time, my grandmother had moved her family to a small house in Bakersfield at 1030 P Street. Mom and Dad weren’t destined to meet quite yet. Dad was twelve years old when he picked potatoes during World War II with the “Diaper Crew,” children paid to pick the fields because of the great shortage of workers due to the war. He says the children weren’t always the most diligent employees and admits he more often threw dirt clods at his friends than he picked potatoes. Later, when he was sixteen, he spent a summer working for the same farm, driving trucks back and forth from the fields and delivering workers.

  Much of our nation’s produce comes from this one area in California. It is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There are dust storms and tule fog and some people do contract Valley Fever. Before I got married, I took the required blood test in San Diego where I had lived during my college years. The doctor called because of an “urgent finding” on my lab results. I worried that something dramatic had been found, until the doctor said, “You tested positive for Valley Fever.”

  I let out a sigh of relief. I grew up seeing lugs of grapes on kitchen tables. I picked plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, persimmons, almonds, walnuts, and pecans from backyard trees. Every year in August, I saw the grapes laid down on the ground to make raisins the same way they’ve been made for generations. Lemons, tomatoes, or squash appeared on our doorstep from neighbors’ or my grandmothers’ gardens. I’d never been conscious of having any symptoms of Valley Fever. The only fever I recollected was my burning affection for my beginnings and belongings.

  “Of course I tested positive,” I said to the doctor. “I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley.” I knew that I had been naturally immunized to the actual disease by merely living there, from the air I had breathed growing up.

  My family’s feelings for the company camp are deep-rooted and still filled with loyalty for their start in this country and for the jobs they had at a time when so many had none. Most of the people I interviewed who lived in the same camp with my grandmother held no grudges against the Oklahomans or others who competed for their jobs at that time. One man I interviewed said, “We were all so poor. The Okies, the Filipinos, they were poor, too. We all knew the feeling of wanting to work and feed our families. That was why it was so hard for so many of us to strike.”

  When I asked about prejudice I was told, “Sure there was prejudice, horrible prejudice, but that’s how things were then.”

  Many struggled just to put food on the table and sometimes seemed to be resigned to the social issues of the time. They focused only on survival and put their hopes and dreams into their children’s and grandchildren’s futures.

  That’s what Grandma did. She survived. All of her children learned English and so did she. Some of her children went to college. One became a professional athlete, another a member of the United States Foreign Service; others became secretaries, a writer, an accountant. And her grandchildren: newscasters, social workers, florists, teachers, film editors, lawyers, small business owners, and another writer: me.

  Our accomplishments were her accomplishments. She wished the best for all of us and rarely looked back on the difficulties of her own life.

>   It is no wonder that in Spanish, esperanza means “hope.”

  About the Author

  Pam Muñoz Ryan was born and raised in California’s San Joaquin (pronounced wah-keen) Valley. She grew up with many of her aunts and uncles and her grandparents nearby and considers herself truly American because her cultural background is an ethnic smorgasbord. She is Spanish, Mexican, Basque, Italian, and Oklahoman.

  As a kid, Pam spent many long, hot valley summers riding her bike to the public library. It became her favorite hangout because her family didn’t have a swimming pool and the library was air-conditioned! That’s how she got hooked on reading and books. When she wasn’t reading she usually could be found daydreaming or putting on plays in her backyard.

  Pam didn’t always know she wanted to be a writer. Before graduating from college she was a babysitter, an exercise instructor, a salesgirl in a bridal store, a cashier at a hardware store, a secretary, and a teacher’s assistant. After college, she knew that she wanted a job that had something to do with books, so she became a teacher. She worked as a bilingual Head Start teacher in Escondido, California.

  After Pam was married and had four children, she went back to school to get her master’s degree in education. One day, out of the blue, a professor asked if she’d ever thought about writing professionally. Then, about three weeks later, a colleague asked if Pam would help her write a book. Before that point, Pam had never considered writing as a career. After that, she couldn’t stop thinking about it and that’s when she finally knew what she really wanted to do.

  Pam is also the author of the award-winning novels Riding Freedom, with drawings by Brian Selznick, and Becoming Naomi León, as well as numerous picture books including Mice and Beans, illustrated by Joe Cepeda, and Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride and When Marian Sang, both illustrated by Brian Selznick.

  For more information about Pam Muñoz Ryan, you can visit her Web site at:

  Q&A with Pam Muñoz Ryan

  Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?

  A: I wanted to be the boss. At home I was the oldest of three sisters, and next door to us there lived another three girls, all younger than me, too. Whenever we played together, I was in charge of what we did. I was the director of the play, the conductor of the train, the Mom in a pretend family, or the heroine who saved the day. I was also the oldest of the twenty-three cousins on my mother’s side of the family. When we had a get-together at my grandmother’s house, I was the self-appointed coordinator again. I would say, “Let’s pretend this is a circus or a school or a jungle.” Then I would tell everyone what to do and what to say. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already creating stories with a cast of characters.

  Q: Have you always been a writer, even as a child?

  A: As a schoolgirl, I never kept a journal, made a book in class, or had an author visit my school. Curriculum was different then and I never knew that an author was something I could be someday. So, when students ask me, “Did you write as a child?” the answer is, not exactly. But I could imagine just about anything. I was a benevolent queen, an explorer, or a doctor saving people from precarious deaths. It never occurred to me to write a story on paper, but I pretended many, right in my own backyard. Also, I come from a family that likes to talk. It wasn’t unusual to sit around after a big Saturday midday meal and “visit” for hours, telling stories. This was all a great foundation for writing.

  Q: As a child, what types of books did you read?

  A: I don’t remember all of the books I read as a child but some are memorable. I read the Little House on the Prairie books. I read (and reread) Sue Barton, Student Nurse and other series-type stories. I remember reading Treasure Island, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Gone with the Wind in junior high school.

  Q: How would you describe your books?

  A: I write books about dreams, discoveries, and daring women. I write short stories about hard times, picture books about mice and beans, and novels about journeys. I write fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, and magical realism. That’s part of the enchantment of writing and creating characters — the variety. The most wonderful thing about being a writer has been that I can “try on” many lives that might be different from my own. Part of the appeal of writing (and reading, too) is the well of strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies that I can sample and then keep, discard, or consider for my characters, and ultimately for myself.

  Q: The girls and women in Esperanza Rising are strong-minded and vibrant, and their bonds are the threads that bind the story. How does this reflect your own experiences? What women — personally or historically — have inspired you the most?

  A: It is easy to see how my family, especially my grandmother, influenced my writing. I come from a very matriarchal family with my grandmother at the helm. Esperanza Rising is based on her immigration story. Perhaps the recurring theme of feminist determination had its impetus in my family history because I do seem interested in stories where the character succeeds despite circumstances that society stacked against her. The quirky, preoccupied Rosa Maria in my picture book Mice and Beans is also based on my grandmother. Ironically, Joe Cepeda agreed to illustrate the book because he thought the grandmother in the story was so much like his mother. Certainly not all Mexican grandmothers are like this character, but I think there is a certain Hispanic verity that is captured within these stories — an adoration of children, big family celebrations, proverbs to live by, and of course, food. The women who have inspired me are the ones about whom I have written: Charlotte Parkhurst, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and my own grandmother.

  Q: Why did you name the chapters in Esperanza Rising after fruits and vegetables?

  A: That wasn’t something that came about early in the planning of the book. It came about later. I started to feel that Esperanza’s life was taking on the rhythm of the harvest, so I called my editor and said, “What if I named the chapters after the harvest that she’s experiencing in each chapter?” She said I should give it a try, and it worked. Then I went back and reworked the chapters a little to pull that thread a little tighter and to make those chapter headings more symbolic.

  Q: How did you learn about life in the company camps? Did it require a lot of research?

  A: I learned about the camps from my grandmother when she was alive. But I began this book many years after she died, so of course when I started writing, I had many detailed questions to which I needed answers. Did they have electricity in the cabins? Were the cabins wood and plaster or just wood walls? Did they use gas stoves or wood stoves? How many rooms did the cabins have? Did people plant gardens? Did they go to town for church or did a priest come to the camp? What did they do for entertainment? How did people feel about striking? And on and on. After many phone calls, I found Jess Marquez who moved to the camp when he was eleven years old. He lived there for five years and actually remembered my grandmother and her family. Several members of my family had worked in the sheds so that’s how I got that information, and one of my aunts told me about potato eyes because she had cut potato eyes for several years. When I came home to Bakersfield while I was working on the book, my dad drove me out to the actual site of the sheds and the railroad tracks. I didn’t have to research the land or the area because I grew up there and we went to Lamont and Arvin almost every Saturday during my childhood.

  Q: Marta is a passionate girl who believes in fighting for her causes. Is she modeled after someone you know or admire?

  A: No, at least not consciously. Marta came to me fully realized with all of her determination and vigor. I needed a character to antagonize Esperanza, to goad her towards growth, and Marta simply walked into my mind and said, “Put me on paper!”

  Q: Your characters see signs in everyday life: Esperanza pricks her finger and worries it will bring bad luck; Abuelita sees an injured bird’s flight as a sign that everything is okay. Do you believe in and see these kinds of signs in your life?

  A: I t
hink that the coincidences we experience in our everyday life sometimes have meaning. How much importance a person gives these signs has to do with her own personal beliefs. Our subconscious is far more developed than we think. We’ve all had “gut feelings” or have done “what our heart tells us.” We have assimilated many subconscious cues and trusted ourselves to make decisions based on those cues. Sometimes a “sign” simply validates what we already know to be most likely true.

  Q: What advice do you have for young people who are interested in writing or finding out about their own cultural background and family history?

  A: Well, the obvious, of course, is to interview your grandparents and parents. I think that one of the best ways is to keep things. Keep old photos, save date books and calendars where you’ve written down events. If you know that your family is from a particular town in another country or this country, go on the web and find out about the town. Look at family picture albums or home videos to solidify your memories. Be curious and ask questions so that you store up lots of memories. That way, those recollections will be there when you’re ready to reflect or write about them, if you’re so inclined.

  Q: What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you crochet?

  A: I read, go for walks, go to the movies, and get together with friends and family. I do normal things like shopping for groceries and paying bills. I do crochet but it’s usually simple things like scarves or baby blankets for a gift for someone.

  Q: Do you have a favorite object in your house? What is it and what makes it special?

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